Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

 NOTE: This is part of a series I'm doing for Halloween. You can catch up here if you are interested:

Let's face it: nothing good ever really comes from Space.
Few things inspire more terror in people than the idea that not only are we not alone, but that the bug-eyed monsters from the outer galaxies are buzzing cornfields in Kansas and picking up random chuckleheads and performing medical experiments on them. Who knows where that comes from, but ever since the Roswell incident, this has been a Going Concern for movies and television, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds notwithstanding.

These movies usually fall into two categories: The misunderstood monster, such as Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the confused being that doesn’t mean to hurt us (the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth comes to mind). I like those movies, but that’s not what this list is about. This list is all about the scary stuff out there—the things that want to eat our faces, literally. There’s something deliciously thrilling when you combine the monstrous with the idea that it came from Out There, where we can’t go and can’t imagine what else might be waiting for us.

Between the Blob and the Tingler, it's a wonder anyone
went into theaters ever again.
The Blob (1958)
This under-appreciated gem is more known now for the theme song that launched the career of Burt Bacharach rather than its own merits, and that’s a shame, because this is such a classic mash up of the “Teen-Agers On the Loose” genre and Whack-Job 50’s Science Fiction. Steve McQueen is the star of the movie, his first role with top billing, and he was pretty embarrassed about it years later. Personally, I'd have been more upset about being cast as a 28-year old juvenile delinquent.

What’s so interesting about The Blob is that it’s unstoppable in a kind of Lovecraftian sort of way. And while it’s easy to ascribe characteristics of mass consumerism in the 1950s to the amorphous, insatiable goo from space, you can’t help but laugh at the irony of the ending and consider the fact that if the blob were real, global warming (excuse me, climate change) would have killed us all by now.

"Hey guys, I'm going to go die in a cliched fashion!
Don't wait up, okay?"
Night of the Creeps (1986)
One of the best things (some would say “only good thing”) about the 1980s was the explosion of horror films and novels, the likes of which we’ve not seen before or since. Night of the Creeps is a film that wears its “80’s-ness” like a bad prom tuxedo, but what it lacks in timelessness, it makes up for in effective and creepy critters that want to take us over.

The creeps in question are space slugs that, once they get inside you, zombify you and make you a walking incubator for them. Oh, and it’s homecoming at Corman University. That’s it, really, but there’s some really great creep out moments when these fast-moving little boogers slither up pants legs and enter people through the mouth. Blargh! The special effects are great (for the 1980’s), but now the fun of the movie comes from seeing 1980’s teen movie clich├ęs get taken over and turned into uglieness. 

These little bastards are the good guys.
Attack the Block (2011)
This movie got a very limited theatrical release, most likely due to its British-ness. When meteors start falling out of the sky, kids in the British version of The Projects—thugs in training, the lot of them—investigate and stumble across, well, you know. It’s South London hoodlums versus some of the most original space boogums I’ve ever seen.

This movie is a kind anti-Goonies, in that none of the children are particularly likeable or loveable. In fact, they are all pretty much little shits. But they have the same problems as any kids in these kinds of films—no one is listening to them, and the few that do, don’t believe them for a second. It’s up to this group of misfits to defend their block against the invaders from space. The results are a nice twist on the old formula, from the characters on down to the monsters. In the end, you will dig this movie, and you’ll probably pick up some new slang to throw around for a fortnight, as well. 

"Hello my baby, Hello my Honey..."
Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott made his reputation on this old school suspense thriller filmed in the confines of a space ship. This was a return to some of the more traditional methods of monster movies, in that audiences didn’t see the alien until the very end of the film. As such, the glimpse we do get are more than enough to freak out and terrify, while the ship’s asshole cat, Jones, provides most of the jump scares for the film. The rest is all tension and great acting from a really good cast, and would have been just fine as a movie except for one thing: The Face Hugger.

From the second that egg splits open to John Hurt’s wonderful surprise death, it’s those scenes that lift Alien up into the classic category. That scene at the dinner table was a shocker for everyone, including the cast, who were not in on the joke. It’s not a surprise that the movie won an Oscar for best visual effects. While the franchise that followed is charitably considered uneven at best, the first film is a modern classic by any definition.

I miss matte paintings. I really do.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawkes classic is closer in theme to the original John W. Campbell story, “Who Goes There?” than its 1950s predecessor, but you won’t care about any of that as you watch this thing morph into dogs, people, and other unnamable stuff. Rob Bottin spearheaded the special effects, and John Carpenter ratcheted up the horror as the research scientists investigate a nearby weather station that apparently found something in the ice and dug it up. Of course, everyone is dead, and when our group of guys start trying to figure out what’s what, the Thing starts taking them over, one by one.

Excellent suspense, coupled with a few jump scares that will make you pee your pants, and lots of paranoia as people try to figure out who’s real and who’s a monster. The film is also very quotable, for those of you who like to sprinkle your House Patois with phrases from recently watched films. The Thing also features Wilford Brimley at his all-time most frightening. The sequel, called also The Thing, (2011), is actually a prequel about what happens to the original research station, and it dovetails nicely into the 1982 film. All in all, not a bad double feature, if you can handle it. You will end on the scarier movie, without a doubt.

Jeffrey Combs fights off the extra-dimensional thingie,
ironically the least suggestive monster in the movie.
Bonus Film! From Beyond (1986)
Not strictly a Monster From Space movie, these strange, bioluminescent uglies are from a different dimensional frequency than ours, and when madman Crawford Tillinghast, played with signature intensity by Jeffrey Combs, turns on his resonator, we can see that they are really all around us...oh, yeah, and they can see us, too...

The second film from the team that brought us the brilliant Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon again play fast and loose with H.P. Lovecraft’s original short story in order to crank up the sex and violence in this freak-filled movie. Many of the beats in the film are standard genre tropes, but when From Beyond veers off, it goes way out there where the buses don’t run. Most of the cast and crew from Re-Animator return with Yuzna and Gordon, and they do a much better job the second time around. The ending is effective, very creepy, and is probably the only real Lovecraftian bit that plays tribute to his work in the film. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

Is this a great poster, or what? Bela Lugosi is
the evil plantation owner in this classic.
I don’t think it’s unfair to call zombies the new vampires. I mean, can you honestly fathom the cultural alchemy that would make a show like The Walking Dead one of the most popular, most watched shows in the history of television? I find the phenomenon around the “pop culturalization” of zombies more interesting than zombies themselves. Before George Romero got ahold of them in 1968, the zombie was a second stringer—a minion of the villainous zombie master or witch doctor or other magic-savvy boogem. They were little more than a plot device until Night of the Living Dead, but we’ll get to that in a second.

I like that the zombies are a cultural stand-in for us—the empty, rabid consumer, and this characterization can be shaded by religion or science, sped up or slowed down, to further delineate what the filmmaker is trying to comment on. Of course, some would argue that the zombie movie is more of a post-apocalyptic exploration of humanity, rather than a simple horror film. I say there’s room for both, and the best zombie movies split the difference handily.

This is another Top 5 List, meaning that there’s actually a lot more to the rankings, but when you get down to the final five, you’re fully steeped in everything that makes the list great in the first place. And since this is a movie list, that’s partially why you won’t see The Walking Dead listed. The other reason is because it owes SO MUCH to the Romero zombie movies, and everyone knows it anyway, that we’ll just assume if you’re reading this list, you know it already, too. If you show these five zombie movies to a person who’s never seen a zombie movie before, these five movies would encompass the full range of all that is cool about the modern zombie movie.

All that aside, if you forced me to put The Walking Dead on this list, it would bump Dead Alive up to number 5 on the list. I think it’s the best one at exploring how man becomes monstrous in the absence of civilization, for no other reason than it has the ability to draw those gradual changes out over a long viewing time. It really does what no other zombie movie has been able to do, and that’s show us what comes next. So it would the Top 5 for that alone. Okay, enough about The Walking Dead. Let’s talk about the movies that made it possible!

And with one bite, that monkey rat undoes the whole
damn neighborhood. Starting with granny, there.
Dead Alive (1992)
Before Peter Jackson became the Laird and Steward of Middle Earth, he made his reputation as a gifted, if twisted, horror director because of Dead Alive. Widely considered one of the grossest movies of all time, this gore-soaked opus is full of black comedy and red meat. The plot is simplicity itself: a monster rat from Skull Island (yes, THAT Skull Island; what, did you think there was more than one?) bites an old lady and confers upon her the insatiable hunger of the living dead. Awesome.

You won’t believe some of the zombie kills in this movie. Jackson was always an innovator, and he intentionally tried to overdo it with this movie. As a result, it’s more shock-funny-gross out than truly scary, but it is so worth watching to see where this veteran filmmaker started out. 

I know it looks like a pack of Vegans running to a Whole
Foods grand opening, but trust me, in the context of
the film, it's bloody terrifying.
28 Days Later (2002)
Now, if you want really scary, this is more your speed. The zombies are fast, and furious in 28 Days Later. The disaster du jour is a biological pathogen that turns people into savages. This was one of the most effective “do-overs” of the slow, shuffling zombie in that every component of the movie makes sense. The film also conveys a real sense of isolation that few other end-of-the-world zombie flicks have be able to equal.

The sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), was long in coming and short on improvements. The civilian government has tried to rebuild, and most of the movie takes place in the tenuously established new world order. Of course, it doesn’t take much for everything to come tumbling down again. I’m not sure we need a third one in this “franchise,” but it’s never up to me.

Don't let your father's underwear fool you. When these
guys get going, it's spooky and creepy in equal parts.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Now we’re talking! George Romero probably had no idea what he was kicking off when he made this low-budget feature around the simple premise that when there is no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the Earth. With that ersatz Biblical pronouncement, we’ve got a town suddenly besieged with corpses that refuse to lie down.

The film is a simply shot, tightly plotted survival film, with a jaw-dropping ending that, if you consider it with the next two movies in the series, is a clue to the cynicism and nihilism that was to follow. The modern zombie movie starts with Night of the Living Dead.

Attention K-Mart Shoppers, we have a special on
BRAAAAAAAAINNNNNS! Actually, these zombies
eat the whole person, which is responsible consumerism.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Why it took George Romero ten years to make the sequel to Night of the Living Dead isn’t important. It’s mostly when he made Dawn of the Dead that added that layer of commentary to his end of the world zombie scenario. As you can imagine from the title, we pick up at the beginning of a new day in a crowded city, and the shit has hit the fan. A small band of survivors escape the chaos in a helicopter, looking for a place to hole up and wait for whatever comes next. What they find is a shopping mall.

With the simple two-line exchange of dialogue, Romero invented the post-modern zombie as mindless consumer. This would inform other zombie movies for decades to come (and still is, to some extent). Zombies are the perfect metaphor for the mindless, insatiable consumerism that is part of the American experience. The survivors create a little utopia that is all too quickly beset upon by the other danger in a post-apocalyptic world: the other survivors.  Romero’s third movie, Day of the Dead (1985), isn’t as pointed in its commentary, but is at least a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

This is the build-up to one of the greatest seduction scenes
in the history of horror films. I am dead serious.

Re-Animator (1985)
Good Lord, what a movie. Re-Animator, with director Stuart Gordon at the helm, jump started the trend in Lovecraftian film making, ironically, by leaving most of the things that make an H.P. Lovecraft story out of the film entirely. What’s left is a one-on-one exploration of man’s quest for knowledge with no thought as to the consequences of that quest, what it will cost, the morality and ethics of what’s involved to achieve those answers, and whether or not we should be asking them in the first place. Yeah, it’s Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, only with violent, mindless animated dead.  I put it in the zombie camp because at the heart of it all, Herbert West is a zombie master in the name of science, rather than sorcery (and he’s played to perfection by the brilliant Jeffrey Combs).

Herbert West is a man of singular vision, and the witty, if darkly so, script, along with Combs manic acting, makes you care for him even though you know he’s doing horrible things in the name of science. When other people find out about West’s little side projects, their own self-interests come into play and West has to get his hands dirty—well, dirtier.

Re-Animator turns most of the zombie conventions on its head—sorry, bad joke—by not restricting itself to intact bodies. One of the best scenes in the film is also the most shocking and whacked. These guys knew what they were doing, both in terms of casting and also in knowing what would make people squirm. The film is less horrifying and more repulsive to most. The sequels are entertaining, but nowhere near as brilliant as the first one. 

Simon and Nick. They do a lot of this in the movie.
A lot.
BONUS FILM! Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I have a difficult time with this film. It’s not scary at all, and I don’t think it was supposed to be, either. I am probably one of the few people that doesn’t find it that funny, either. And yet, I’ve watched the movie several times, because it’s a commentary on the zombie scenario in general. If we accept the premise that the zombies are the mindless consumer, then Shaun of the Dead is about the blue-collar idiot’s response to the zombie apocalypse.

The idea of two working-class man-children who are so self-absorbed that they don’t notice the problem until it is literally on top of them is a neat idea, I guess, but then the film changes into a redemption story with Shaun trying to patch things up with this ex-girlfriend. This goes against all of my survival instincts and really bothered me as I watched them make all of these mistakes (I know, they were attempting to write a movie as if they didn’t know anything about zombies). It was more frustrating the first time I viewed it. My take has mellowed on repeated viewings. However, I can’t recommend this to anyone wanting a good zombie movie, because it’s not a good zombie movie. It is, however, a good Edgar Wright film about relationships, which is what he’s great at, set in and amongst a zombie uprising. Not the same thing. If you’ve seen all of the above films, and want a kind of video essay on the metaphorical underpinnings of the pop culture zombie, then this is your film.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

If I have to choose a Dracula, I choose Christopher Lee.
Vampires. What used to conjure up images of a pale, aristocratic gentleman in formal dinner wear has now been supplanted by pale, haunted-looking teenage boys who twinkle. No matter. The vampire tradition is as old as the cinema itself, and much older, still. Every country has their own version of the vampire in their folklore, and believe me, no two are alike.

So, how come all of the vampires in the movies are so...Dracula-esque? Have you ever looked at the sheer number of vampire movies that have Dracula in the title? It’s a lot. As literary figures go, Dracula is one of the most successful, most popular of all time.

Maybe that’s why I gravitate to different vampire stories. I like ‘em monstrous and feral. Oh, they can look human at first, and they can even be attractive and seductive, provided they ugly-up when the blood spills. I watched a lot of Dracula films as a kid, and I kinda burned myself out on them. Now when I want vampires, I go in a different direction. These films below pretty much sum up what I’m looking for in a vampire flick.

"What's the matter Charlie? Afraid I wouldn't come over
without being invited first?" Oh, man...
Fright Night (1985)
This film is high on a number of lists, because it gleefully embraces the vampire folklore and then subverts it. Like so many 1980s movies, Fright Night is a post-modern commentary on the genre, even as the story is made up entirely of genre conventions. When the next door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige, turns out to be a creature of the night, no one believes the horror-movie obsessed kid. Roddy MacDowell is perfect as the aging actor who appeared in so many b-grade vampire movies and finds himself in the role of a lifetime. The writing is terribly uneven; all of the dialogue surrounding the kids and school feels like it was written by tired old men. However, the vampire stuff is premium. Not only are there some great jump-scares in the movie, but also some real horror moments of dread, such as the first time Charlie meets his vampire neighbor face-to-face.

Probably the most effective vampire make up ever.
Nosferatu (1922)
I love that this film survived the wrath of Bran Stoker’s widow. This loose version of the Dracula story is so creepy as a silent film, and also features some striking visuals that have yet to be equaled in cinema. Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck, is iconic and surreal, with his rat-like features and distended claw-like hands. What a visual. Of course, the special effects are primitive, but the film still has a mood and a feeling that makes you want to keep watching. This storied film has been restored by Kino and is available in a “definitive” version, digitally cleaned up as much as possible. Nosferatu is the cinematic acorn from which has grown the mighty oak tree.

Punk rock vampires? I dunno, but they were awesome.
Near Dark (1987)
This indy vampire film came out the same year as the slick, polished The Lost Boys, and I think is a far better movie, for no other reason than it stars a young Bill Paxton and an old Lance Hendrikson instead of Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. Written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is about a young man who falls in love with a wild young woman, and falls in with this pack of traveling vampires. These guys aren’t nice, nor are they particularly sexy, although I know there’s a group of women out there who think Lance Hendrikson is the man. This is a mean, stripped down, and bloody story that wallows in young love and nihilism.  

Clockwork Vampires? Why not?
Cronos (1993)
When I first saw this movie, Guillermo Del Toro’s first film, I was blown away. An old man acquires a strange artifact that imparts immortality, but at such a cost...and even as he’s dealing with the repercussions of messing with the scarab, other interested parties are closing in on him. Such an interesting premise for vampirism, and specifically the part that imparts immortality. I was struck by how “literary” the film was, giving us some complicated stuff and letting us sit with it for a while. How nice. Of course, this is all part of how Del Toro puts movies together in the first place. As vampire movies go, this one is one of the furthest off the path, but it’s those differences that make it so interesting. This is a great example of quiet horror. You watch the movie, and then later, as you’re thinking about it, things come back to you and give you the shudders. 

These kids didn't need any help being creepy on camera.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Easily one of the best vampire movies ever. A bullied and tortured young boy meets a slightly older girl and they become friends. It sounds, and kinda feels, like one of those French films from the 1970s that were on HBO in heavy rotation. But it quickly takes several dark, creepy turns and becomes something that grows more horrific the longer you think about the implications. The movie does a good job of merely suggesting and hinting at what the book makes graphically explicit. Of course, they remade the film into the American Let Me In, and did as good a job with it as they could have, but there’s something about the Swedish version that is way more unsettling. I can’t recommend this film highly enough if you’re a horror movie junkie.

Aah! Creepy kids! These vampires are almost reptilian.
Bonus film! 30 Days of Night (2007)
This movie, based on the comic book smash hit (which was a failed movie pitch initially, thus showing us how Hollywood’s collective brain works) is all concept and unfortunately, not a lot of execution. The premise is exquisite: at the poles, where night can last for thirty days straight, you’d have to be more concerned about vampires than polar bears. Genius idea. However, the movie (which seems to borrow a lot from John Carpenter’s playbook) doesn’t switch it up as much as it should. I wanted more vampire-fu, since this is a protracted siege on the town. However, the movie closes ranks pretty quickly and the result is pretty uneven. You’ll either love it or hate it, but there’s not a lot of room in between.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

The Classic Wolf Man from 1940. Still an effective and moody story.
 Werewolves are my favorite monsters. I’ve always been fascinated with transformation—moving from a weaker to a more powerful form, or unleashing the monster inside of man. This is the crux of the werewolf story, and mostly where the horror is rooted in. Similar to Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the afflicted leading man (or woman) is usually a model citizen, normal and average in every way, except for when the moon shines full and bright in the sky... The flip side to my fascination with werewolves is my fear of a loss of control, which is what most people pick up on in werewolf movies. There are exceptions, of course, and the movies I like the best in this genre tend to be the ones that play with those expectations, as we will see. I should mention before you dig into the list that there are minor spoilers, so don't read too carefully if you haven't seen the movie in question.

These Dog Soldiers are truly monstrous in size and scale.
 5. Dog Soldiers (2002)
This is a straight-up monster movie, from start to finish. Writer/director Neil Marshall keeps the plot elegant in its simplicity. A special ops squad is doing maneuvers in the Scottish highlands when they run across the remains of the squad they were meeting up with. Next thing you know, the hunters become the hunted... And that’s it. Werewolves on the moors. Simple, really. Here the werewolves are forces of nature, rather than existential metaphors. They are also well designed and pretty damn scary.

One of the many surreal moments in the movie.
4. The Company of Wolves (1984)
This almost-an-art-house film makes the list for sheer audacity. This is a framing story, with three vignettes tucked in between, and a meta-story around the framing story. Yeah, it’s one of those. But don’t worry, it’s imminently watchable. In fact, the confusion is part of what makes the movie unsettling. The vignettes are all different representations of werewolves in folklore, which I personally love. Angela Lansbury is great as the storytelling grandmother who keeps her granddaughter entertained with these gruesome tales. There’s a creepy sexual undertone to a lot of the stories, where the wolf equals lust in these cautionary tales. This movie also gets credit for the variety of transformations, including the crazy shedding of the skin gag featured on the movie poster. 

Bottin's werewolves have a comic book feel to them.
3. The Howling (1981)
Ahh, the 1980s...The Howling wears its 80’s-ness like a shroud, but that doesn’t keep it from being creepy and horrifying, though not always for the right reasons. Rob Bottin, the special effects guy who did the monster work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, turns in some fantastic transformations that still make the back of my knees all clammy. This book differs widely from the novel by Gary Brandner, and that’s something of a shame, as there are less creaky coincidences in the book.  Dee Wallace plays a TV reporter stalked by a serial killer (who turns out to be a werewolf) and in their final showdown—at the beginning of the movie—the reporter is left traumatized. To recuperate, the doctor sends her to a retreat in the woods upstate (that just happens to be a werewolf colony). Huh. What do you know about that?  And yet, somehow it still all manages to work.

That's Ginger, getting her vamp on.
2. Ginger Snaps (2000)
A really clever premise is the fulcrum on which this entire movie hangs. The time of the month is the time of the moon for a young wallflower who is attacked by, well, you know...and when her budding reproductive system kicks in, she becomes all that and a bag of chips, as well as a slayer of boys. The werewolf as puberty. Brilliant. Good monster effects compliment a script that hits every note perfectly. Also a nice change of pace, since 90% of all werewolf movies are guys chasing girls around in a play on the "Big Bad Wolf/Little Red Riding Hood" dynamic. Ginger Snaps turns that on its ear and is all the better for it.

"I didn't mean to call you meatloaf, Jack."
1. American Werewolf in London (1980)
Still the gold standard by which all other werewolf movies are measured. Director John Landis took the classic Wolf Man plot and modernized it with a mix of humor and some great jump scares. But the star of the movie isn’t David “I’m a Pepper” Naughton, but rather Rick Baker, who won his first Academy Award for his special effects make-up in the film. David’s transformation is painful, horrible, and fascinating all at the same time. Landis did the best job of making us really care about David and his plight. And that’s what makes The Wolf Man and other films work; there’s a tragedy to the curse of the werewolf. No one wants to be that guy.  And there’s only one way out, in the end. 

This film was plagued with production problems and reshoots
which may account for the atrocious ending. Who knows?
Bonus Film: The Wolf Man (2009)
And speaking of Rick Baker, the twenty-first century remake of the 1940 classic is a flawed masterpiece. Baker’s reworking of Jack Pierce’s make-up is, as ever, spot-on. He managed to keep the recognizable elements of the make-up and still do his own interpretation of the Wolf Man idea. And up until the last act, the film is fantastic, layered, and interesting. Benicio Del Toro is great as the tortured Lawrence Talbot. The period and the gothic overtones are a perfect match for the story. However, the movie's climax is a hot mess, and unfortunately undercuts everything leading up to it. Despite the horrible ending, the fact that the movie got made at all is proof that there's still life in the werewolf story, and there's still a lot to be done with the classics, provided you can stick the landing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

My First WorldCon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It was so hot, the sun cooked the skirt
right off of my dashboard hula dancer. 

 LoneStarCon 3 has come and gone, and boy, are my arms tired. It was my first ever WorldCon, and I had zero idea of what to expect. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to help out with some of the programming, or agree to curate an exhibit on Robert E. Howard’s legacy, or agree to serve on the ALAMO board of directors, at least not until I knew what I was getting myself into.

The logistics of putting on a WorldCon are not much different from other conventions; there’s just more of them. There’s programming out the wazoo at WorldCon, and multiple dances, and of course, the awards ceremony. It’s a lot like putting on three conventions’ worth of activities in one weekend. This is compounded by the fact that the Floating Temporary Permanent Volunteer WorldCon Committee (hereby acronymed down to F.T.P.V.W.C., or “Fit-Piv-Wic,” with the accent on the second syllable) are attempting to organize the entire thing while literally scattered across the country. This adds a layer of organization, communication, and functionality (not to mention disparate personality types) to an activity that usually isn’t so contentious when people are looking at each other from across the room.

In fact, there’s so much to talk about regarding this first WorldCon from my own limited, biased, and narrow point of view, that I’m going to break it up into areas for those of you who only want to read about my hardships, or maybe you just want to hear my thoughts on the convention in general. Feel free to skim over the topic headings until you see what you like, or just start at the top and slog your way through it all, much like I had to do last week.

My Personal Saga

I’ll spare you the minutiae and cover the high points: on Monday, I had major car trouble that put me six hours behind and over three hundred dollars light. On Tuesday, I found out that the exhibit space I’d designed for was in no way, shape or form related to the exhibit space I got. It was absolute hash. I left it in impartial hands, thankfully, and they were able to make sense of what needed to happen, brilliantly so. But they had to do it all on Wednesday, while I was on a twelve-hour long bus trip to Cross Plains and back. That evening, I ate undercooked bacon at Denny’s and got food poisoning. Thursday and part of Friday was spent in recovery from that—it sapped a lot of my strength, obviously. By Saturday, I was ready to play, but Saturday and Sunday were my busiest days. After panels, and then dinner (and by the way, my system never really recovered completely from the Denny’s meal), I was out of gas completely. Only on Monday did I get any bar time, which was awesome, and all too brief.

Not my best convention, on a personal note. Not by a long shot. However, it was not a total bust.

Name Checking for Fun and Profit

The sheer number of folks I saw and had brief interactions with are legion. Granted, many of them are Texas regulars, but some are not and it was awesome to see them again. My only real complaint was that I didn’t get nearly enough bar time to chill out, have a laugh or two, and be the convivial and charming raconteur that I usually am at these kinds of things. I think we all know who lost here: Texas.

But seeing Jess Nevins, Daryl Gregory, Nancy Hightower, Maurice Broaddus, Paolo Bacigalupi, Caroline and Warren Specter, John Klima, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Peggy Hailey, Joe Lansdale, Kasey Lansdale, Howard Waldrop, Scott Cupp, John Picacio, Sanford Allen, Stina Leicht, Rhonda Eudaly, Martha Wells, Jessica Reissman, Lillian Stewart Carl, Patrice Sarath, Paige E. Ewing, Josh Roundtree,  Lon Prater,Vincent Villafranca, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ann Vander Meer, David Spurlock, Chris N. Brown, Lawrence Person, Paul Benjamin, Alan Porter, Derek Johnson, Lou Anders, Don Webb and all the rest of the Southwestern Fans and Friends was wonderful, if all too brief. I got to wave at Steven Brust from a crowded elevator, shout at Brad Denton as we were running in opposite directions, bellow at Paul Cornell, blurt at John Scalzi, and otherwise ping-pong around the parties, spreading the love. I also met a lot of new folks, and talk to a ton of enthusiastic fans. More on this, later.

I got to have dinner with Ray Guns Over Texas editor Rick Klaw and his wife, Brandy, the most, along with my old friend and program participant Weldon Adams (also my roommate for this little odyssey). And of course, Team REH: Paul Herman, Rusty Burke, Bill “Indy” Cavalier, Dennis McHaney, Jeff Shanks, Dave Hardy (with serious help from wife Julie and daughter Brigid), Damon Sasser, Rob Roehm, and all the way from France, Patrice Louinet.  This was my home base, and these folks more or less kept me sane, hydrated, and made sure I was wearing pants and not running late to any panels. Thanks a million, folks.

Robert E. Howard

Some of you may have noticed that there were, ah, a few panels on Robert E. Howard and his legacy. This was completely intentional. When I was asked to help out with the programming duties, I was told that there were absolutely zero panels on Robert E. Howard at the last Texas WorldCon, in 1997. This is not surprising. The 1990s are something of a Dark Ages for Howard Studies, with no copies of Howard’s own Conan books on the shelves and no real intentions to do so. It wasn’t until around the late 1990s that Wandering Star entered the picture, with their desire to produce authoritative texts of Howard’s work, in deluxe hardcover editions, and with high end illustrations. That was the start of the REH Renaissance, really. So, a lot has happened in the thirteen years between Texas WorldCons. A lot.

That track of programming was a corrective, and it was extremely successful. We had large crowds for most of the panels (the poetry stuff was a bust, frankly, and no one could find the film programming to come see “Barbarian Days”) and lot of participation. But in particular, I slanted the panels to hit the older fans. When I came down for the big meeting in April, I had two people pull me aside—older men, both—and tell me how pleased and excited they were to see that REH was going to be on the panels this year. They were big fans, they told me, and read all of that stuff in the 1970s. I asked them, “Have you been keeping up with what we’ve been doing in the past fifteen years?” Oh, no, they said. They just read the books and really enjoyed them, but they haven’t looked at them since the seventies. Heh. Okay, guys, this panel’s for you.

I intentionally loaded the topics to entice the older fans. We had an obligatory Conan panel, and that room was packed. Even better, it was a smashing success. I opened it up to talk about pop culture Conan, and everyone stayed right on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the whole time. Fantastic. And the more we talked about corrupted texts, bad biographical practices, ulterior motives, and the complicated relationship between the fans and L. Sprague de Camp, I saw more light bulbs going on behind these guys’ eyes. Oh, there were a few of them who wanted to debate the point, citing de Camp’s standing as a gifted and talented author, and blah blah blah. I told one of them what I always say, which is that de Camp was great for Conan, but really lousy for Robert E. Howard. That pretty much ended the discussion.We opened a lot of eyes and changed a lot of minds over the four day weekend.

The Robert E. Howard exhibit got a lot of traffic, as did the Robert E. Howard Foundation Table. Lots of books were sold, memberships handed out, and we all had a ton of great conversations with people who were genuinely interested in REH, his works, and what we were doing there. It was everything that we wanted WFC 2006 to be, and more.


San Antonio, invaded by Martian Walkers. Cool.
My non-REH programming was great. In hindsight, I wish I’d had more of it. But I was on a mission, so, you know... It was a scandal-free WorldCon, for which I am terribly grateful, even though now in the various armchair reports coming out, the very same issues are coming up: more parity, more youth, more inclusiveness, etc. I don’t disagree with any of those comments. This year’s convention attendees looked old. They just did. I say that with grey in my temples, too. It was an old, white, sausage fest. And yet, there were a number of interesting contradictions that reared up during the show.

The kid’s programming was hands down the best kid’s programming I’d ever seen in 20+ years of going to conventions. It was awesome. All of it. Make your own lightsabers? Jet packs? Steampunk nerf guns?  Captain America shields? Intro role-playing lessons? Good Lord, I wanted to do all of that, and more. Our REH Camp Mascot, Brigid, was in and out of the kid’s programming all weekend, constantly showing us the new thing she’d built. They let the kids pour metal figures, for crying out loud. How freaking cool is that?

And yet, there were so few kids and parents there for the duration. Granted, there were a number of one day passes with moms and girls, but that’s not the issue. That programming track was brilliant, and no one knew about it. That should be an up-front feature for WorldCon: “Bringing the Next Generation into Fandom, one Jet Pack at a time!” It needed to be a button on the main page, next to General Info. You want younger kids? Parents? Youth? You’ve got to let them know that stuff like that is already in place.

I know a number of women in Texas fandom, and also creators. My own areas of programming were pretty limited to sausage-y things, but we tried, we really tried, to get women on the panels wherever we could. Granted, I wasn’t working on a Y.A. track, but we did as much as we really could. I asked folks, “what do you want to be on?” and then took those answers straight to programming. And during the con, I asked people what they thought, how the panels went, etc. and by and large the replies were overwhelmingly positive.

Attendance was good. You wouldn’t know it unless you were in a packed panel, because the con was spread way-the-hell-out all over the convention center. I really hate the San Antonio Convention Center (and the Marriot hotels right next to it). Overpriced, overblown, inconvenient, and generally there to fleece the tourists. The last five trips I’ve made to San Antonio have all been to that Marriot and Convention Center. I’ve got good friends in San Antonio, who love the town, but I personally hate the Riverwalk and all that is clustered around it. It’s just so inauthentic, and really lame. A shopping mall, so close to the Alamo, just makes my teeth itch.

This being my first WorldCon, and being on the inside of some things, too, was very eye-opening. Now that I’ve seen one run, and gotten a glimpse at how the sausage is made, I am somewhat mollified. That doesn’t mean that what the other bloggers are saying about how the convention needs to skew younger, be more inclusive, etc, isn’t spot-on, but I’ll do my list anyway, and discuss some of the practical considerations inherent in changing the mission of WorldCon.

Fixing WorldCon for the 75th Anniversary

Everyone wants it fixed “NOW” and well, that’s just not possible. But there are four years until 2017, the 75th WorldCon, and that’s a great deadline to have some of these things in place for a newer, shinier convention that will return it to its former glory.

Fix the Hugos. There’s a list of things that people have been complaining about the Hugos for years, and fixing them would be ideal. The best, easiest example: Add a Y.A. category. That they haven’t done this yet is stupid, and smacks of an answer that I heard often during this process “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The success, the popularity, and the importance of the surge in the young adult market cannot be overstated. Embrace it. That’s just one example. But you get what I’m talking about. It’s time to stop being so snooty about science fiction. When it started, it was full of pulps and comics. Let’s never forget that.

Add Media, Gaming, and YA to the programming. This doesn’t have to be odious. I know many of the FiTPiVWiCs and SMOFs that I talked to don’t want the show to get any bigger. Well, not the size of DragonCon, anyway. But consider this instead: how about inviting one or two game creators to the show? How about one or two TV series or movie makers? Writers and artists? Not the whole cast and crew of the Avengers, but what about just inviting Joss Whedon? See, you can keep it cerebral, focused on the written word, and interesting to fans without having Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man suit onhand. Now, you’ll probably have to pay for these people to show up, but I think the cost of doing business with them will more than pay for itself. As for Young Adult programming—guess what? That’s hotter than Georgia Asphalt right now. It was a packed panel at WorldCon this year. Why was there only one?  It’s because the FiTPiVWiCs and SMOFs don’t read Young Adult books. That’s why. Simple. 

Here’s a freebie, London: Next year is the 30th anniversary of the film Buckaroo Banzai. Get the director, D.W. Richter and the writer, Earl Mac Rauch, and maybe Peter Weller, to come in and talk about the film. Outside of airfare and hotel rooms, I’m willing to bet you that they are pretty cheap. You’ll get a packed house at the panel, and long lines for the autographing. And who knows? Die-hard BB fans may just come to your show BECAUSE you’re doing it. Granted, it may only be about a couple of hundred Uber-fans of Buckaroo Banzai, but isn’t 200 memberships worth it? But you need to lock it down fast, and then advertise the hell out of it, because otherwise, how will people know? Just listing it won’t get it done. You’ve got to start selling WorldCon from scratch, because there are far more people (like the 60,000 that showed up at DragonCon last week) who don’t know who or what WorldCon is than those that do right now. 

Make an effort to include more Fans. Granted, fixing the programming above will take care of some of this on its own. But other fan groups need some love, too. The costume contest in San Antonio was non-existent. Oh, I mean, there was one, but for a WorldCon, it was pretty anemic. Why? Because the Greybeards, as they were dubbed during the convention, don't dress up anymore. There should have been four days of costume programming, themed to coincide with each day of the show. And there could be. The facilities were there, in spades.There were two hundred people working on WorldCon. Surely a few more volunteers to get the costuming up to a fever pitch wouldn't have added to anyone's work load.

Stop going toe-to-toe with DragonCon. Just stop it, please. And don't you dare say "well, it's ALWAYS been on Labor Day weekend." Don't you even friggin' think it. Conventions move around. Nothing is set in stone. Go back to early August for WorldCon and stop trying to slug it out with the second-largest Pop Culture convention in the country. That ain't your fight, so quit making it your fight.

This doesn’t have to happen all at once. But I think the groups that just won the bids for the upcoming shows would do well to listen to what paying members past and present, many of whom are professional writers and artists, have said about WorldCon. They are the customers. They are telling you what they want to see at future shows. This shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. And while the convention itself is non-profit (another mistake, in my opinion), there is still an impetus to make money every year.

Final Thoughts

The Riverwalk, under attack. Note the tractor beam. Neat!
Will I go to another WorldCon? Yeah, probably. I wouldn’t travel to one, unless I was nominated for something, and I don’t have the body of work or the fans to make that happen yet. I would consider helping out with another WorldCon in Texas, but only if all of the above points were addressed—and maybe additionally, only if I were involved with the bid so as to address all of the above, right out of the gate. My single biggest frustration to this year’s WorldCon was not being able to advocate for, say, Dallas or Fort Worth instead of San Antonio. It would have been much easier to plan for and do stuff with a convention and a group of fans that I’d worked with before. But that’s all beside the point. The show was good, and can be a major thing again. It needs a little help, from outside forces, and a lot of leadership and direction from within, if it’s going to make those changes and still be a viable convention.

Me? I’m still recovering. The drive alone has rendered me spent and goofy. It’ll be a month until I’m fixed. But I’m sure I’ll have more to talk about later. Hopefully, it won’t involve any “twerking” scandals. Twerking. Pfft. You ever get the feeling that we’re all being punked by Ashton Kutcher?